Wednesday, November 14, 2001
Buckeyes can't look past Illini
Michigan focus has to wait
The Associated Press
COLUMBUS On the blustery day in January when Jim Tressel took over as the head football coach at Ohio State, he said he already was thinking about ways to beat Michigan.
Eleven months later and 10 days removed from the annual showdown with the Wolverines Tressel said he and his 25th-ranked Buckeyes can't afford to think of anything beyond Saturday's game with No.12 Illinois.
If you watched any of the Illinois film, that would put all your focus on Illinois, Tressel said Tuesday. He said he remembered a few times in the 1980s, when he was an assistant Ohio State coach, when the game before Michigan didn't seem to have the luster.
If this one doesn't grab all of your focus, you're not going to like the result.
The rivalry with Illinois might not be on the same plane with that of Michigan, but to the Buckeyes, both opponents look the same: above them in the Big Ten standings.
No.11 Michigan, which hosts Ohio State a week from Saturday, is 7-2 overall and 5-1 in the conference. The Wolverines play at Wisconsin this week.
Illinois is also 5-1 in the Big Ten and 8-1 overall, with the Buckeyes just a notch back of the co-leaders with marks of 4-2 and 6-3.
Safety Donnie Nickey said the looming battle with the neighbors to the north is not a distraction for the Buckeyes.
All of the focus is on Illinois, the senior said. For us who have been around long enough for so many Michigan games, you have to focus on the game before that. You can't look ahead.
Fans have a tendency to get ahead of the game at hand. They already know that if the Buckeyes beat the Illini and Michigan, they are assured of no worse than a share of the Big Ten title and possibly a Bowl Championship Series berth.
The players know it, too.
It's down to crunch time, Nickey said. We have to win out. We win out and we win the Big Ten. You couldn't really ask for anything more scripted.
Twelve seniors will play their final home game for the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Tressel said it was the upperclassmen who carried the team through the bleak days after losses to UCLA, Wisconsin and Penn State.
It's always healthy to remind the rest of us who aren't seniors that our 12 guys are getting to line up in Ohio Stadium for the last time, Tressel said. There'll be a day for all of us that that's the case. We want to make sure that their last day is a good one. That awareness is good for the rest of us.
One reason why the Buckeyes have regrouped in recent weeks, winning their last two games, is the strong play of quarterback Steve Bellisari. The senior left-hander was loudly booed by fans at Ohio State home games and ridiculed by callers to radio shows after hitting just 8-of-21 passes for 68 yards in the 29-27 loss at Penn State three weeks ago.
In the two games since he was booed by OSU fans, he has completed 26 of 37 passes (70.3 percent) for five touchdowns without an interception. In Ohio State's first seven games, he was 62-of-148 passing (42 percent) with six interceptions and only three TD passes.
Tressel said Bellisari has improved his footwork and his decision-making while the other components of the offense (offensive line, backs and wide receivers) have all gotten better as well. Still, Tressel is aware that Bellisari has frequently been blamed for the Buckeyes' failings.
Asked how Bellisari would be treated by a crowd in excess of 100,000 at Ohio Stadium, Tressel smiled and said, At the beginning of the game or the end?
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